blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)

Director Lumet wrote at length about his compositional decisions for 12 Angry Men in his book about filmmaking, aptly titled Making Movies. The camera starts up high, looking down at the jury room and its jurors, then gradually moves down and in; by the third act, it’s in tight, low-angle close-ups. It’s beautiful, sublime work with gorgeous black and white photography from Boris Kaufman.

But it’s only one of Lumet’s moves, and, while eventually the most important, it’s not the most startling. It’s a gradual, deliberate device. You can watch it as the film progresses, identify where Lumet makes changes. The most startling and deftest move is how Lumet brings the audience into the jury room as an active observer. The height and angle of the shot are part of it, but when it comes to the men sitting around talking and arguing, Lumet wants the audience to have a seat at the table. The camera becomes subjective, whether a juror speaking directly into it or the camera peering at someone, trying to suss out what they’re thinking.

But at one point, Lumet entirely flips it, giving the camera a second-person viewpoint. Loudmouth marmalade salesman and baseball fan Jack Warden makes a big scene, then has to apologize to someone. It’s the first time Warden’s acknowledged he can be wrong—he’s bigger on identifying when someone else is incorrect—and Lumet shoots Warden in one shot. There are a couple cutaways to the wronged party, but it’s mostly just this long take of Warden being extra, then realizing his error. The length of the shot isn’t for Warden, however, it’s for the audience. So much of 12 Angry Men is about a group of men looking at others; the shot of Warden doesn’t have the ten other guys. And the wronged party is in close-up, from Warden’s perspective. The rest of the room is silent, some doodling, some daydreaming, many smoking, many silently watching, just like the audience. It puts the audience in the in-group and Warden temporarily in the out-group. It’s an incredible beat and a literal relief.

The film opens with a jury getting their instructions from a bored judge (Rudy Bond); Bond makes sure the men know if they vote guilty, they’ll be sending the defendant to the electric chair. They retire to the locked jury room, and men settle in, making small talk, and reading the newspaper. Really quick ground situation establishing and hints at character details. Only one of them has an actual character arc throughout, Lee J. Cobb. A few others have shorter arcs as they realize they’re not so sure about their initial guilty verdict, but Cobb’s the one who the film—from a strict distance—reveals enough about for him to have an arc.

Led by jury foreman Martin Balsam, the men take an initial vote. Eleven guilty, one not guilty; Henry Fonda is the holdout. He’s not ready to send an eighteen-year-old Hispanic kid (John Savoca) to the electric chair without at least talking about it. 12 Angry Men runs ninety minutes and change, mostly continuously, but it’s not exactly real-time.

Most of the jurors have passively decided: Balsam, John Fielder, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, and Robert Webber. Of course, they’re assuming the prosecuting attorney’s not just going to lie.

Then there are the die-hards with other reasoning. Cobb has issues with his son—Savoca’s accused of killing his punchy father after having enough one night. Ed Begley’s a racist. E.G. Marshall’s a stockbroker who needs the prosecuting attorney to be unimpeachable to preserve his investment in the “system.”

The system, of course, is patriarchal white supremacy, which 12 Angry Men couldn’t even talk about if it knew what it was talking about. Not in 1957. But the film’s very much about Fonda convincing the men to question their prejudices and preconceptions. Some of the men bend to reason; some react to the opposition having such shitty logic (if not the bald racism), and some just need the confidence to (earnestly) share their truths.

Reginald Rose’s screenplay (based on his earlier teleplay for an episode of “Westinghouse Studio One”) never gives the actors too much about themselves. Almost everyone eventually shares the basics: their jobs, their family situations—no names, not until the end, and then only a couple. They’re a group of white men in a situation with social norms, but there are bullies operating on different levels; they’re still strangers, even when they’re in the exact same demographics, and they’re trying to figure out how to talk with one another. Their frustrations (and fulfillments) might play out in dialogue, but the performances are all physical. We’re watching the men find their voices, good and bad, both through their dialogue and just their physicalities. It’s an exceptionally well-made film. The way Lumet watches the performances, the way the men interrupt one another, listen to one another; it’s an actors’ picture, to be sure, but almost more a reaction picture.

They’re all setting one another off, intentionally and not, to great success.

The best performance is Cobb. After him, the top tier is Fonda, Marshall, Warden, Sweeney, and Voskovec. Then Begley, Klugman, Binns, and Balsam. Fielder and Webber are both good but have the most caricatural parts. Webber’s the closest thing the film’s got to comic relief, while Fielder’s just the sweet, meek guy.

Besides Cobb and Fonda, the other big star is Kenyon Hopkins’s score. The film doesn’t need the music for drama—and Men doesn’t use it to punctuate—but the music’s still essential to the experience. Just like the audience, it’s also got a seat in the deliberations, another active participant.

Great editing from Carl Lerner.

12 Angry Men’s one of the true masterpieces of film. Everything about it improves on repeat viewings: the acting, the directing, the music. All of it. Just staggering.

One response to “12 Angry Men (1957, Sidney Lumet)”

  1. Vernon W

    I haven’t seen this since I was a kid. Now I’ll have to make a slot for it. Thanks! !

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: